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Local reporting: South Side AIDS group at 25, and more

Betty Smith was a respiratory therapist who was tired of seeing AIDS patients treated as pariahs when she founded the South Side Help Center in 1987.

She started by reaching out to African American ministers. When many were “hesitant,” she started going to their wives.

Today the South Side Health Center offers HIV testing, education and outreach programs along with myriad community services like youth mentoring and substance abuse counseling. The group is also dedicated to fostering other, younger community groups.

The group is turning 25 this year, and it’s featured in Windy City Times’ AIDS At 30 series, part of the Chicago Community Trust’s Local Reporting Initiative and the subject of one of several new posts at the Community News Project blog.

There’s the story of “Nina,” the first woman in the WINGS program of Cook County’s new prostitution court, profiled by Sarah Ostman at Gapers Block. And there are lots of stories of residents of Southwest Side communities collected by the Southwest Neighborhood Youth Writers Project. Check it out.

Obama could stop deportations, DODT discharges

While it’s true that comprehensive immigration reform will now require Republican votes, Representative Luis Guiterrez says that President Obama could “stop deportation and the destruction of our families” with an executive order, Media Consortium reports.

So far the Obama administration has stepped up efforts to deport immigrants under draconian laws, but over-reliance on local law enforcement has led immigration courts to reject an increasing number of deportation cases, according to the report.

Meanwhile Achy Obejas reports the suggestion of Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s new senator – especially interesting coming from the only Democrat to oppose repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Said Manchin: “Some believe that President Obama, as Commander-in-Chief, if he so chooses, has the authority to suspend discharges under DADT, if he deems it a matter of national security. If this is correct, and the President was to make such an order, while I may disagree with it, I would respect his authority as President to do so.”

Youth win on CPS guards, grievance process

In a victory for two youth organizing drives, CPS has agreed to establish a grievance procedure for students experiencing violence, harassment or discrimination, and to pilot a program training security guards to use principles of restorative justice in their work.

Both campaigns promote the restorative justice approach – emphasizing accountability as an alternative to zero tolerance and punitive discipline – as a more effective approach to reducing violence, said Sam Finkelstein of GenderJust, an LGTB student group that protested at CPS headquarters and at CPS chief Ron Huberman’s home to demand a grievance procedure.

GenderJust announced last month that CPS had agreed to establish a process for students to file grievances on paper, by phone, or via a website.  Complaints may be investigated by the district’s Equal Opportunity Compliance Office. A student oversight committee will monitor the process.

“It’s important that students’ voices are heard when bad things are done to them,” said Nelleli Luna of GenderJust, a sophomore at Little Village Lawndale High.

Last week, Blocks Together Youth Council announced an agreement with CPS to pilot restorative justice training for security guards in five or more high schools.  The West Humboldt Park youth group has organized for years against security guard misconduct and policies that criminalize youth.

The two groups supported each other and worked together at various points over the past year.  Southwest Youth Collaborative also worked on the security guard issue.

Both groups have their work cut out for them: GenderJust is working up a publicity drive to inform students about the grievance procedure, including a citywide Queer Student Orientation at the beginning of the school year.  BTYC is identifying schools to participate and working with restorative justice practitioners to create a curriculum.

The agreement with CPS security director Michael Shields includes a commitment to facilitate discussions with the administration at Orr High School, where many BTYC members are students, said Ana Mercado.  Though the school has peer juries based on restorative justice, they aren’t widely used, she said.  “The administration doesn’t really understand it, and doesn’t put its weight behind it,” Mercado said.

One goal for the coming year is to talk about what full implementation of a restorative justice policy would look like for CPS, Finkelstein said.  The approach is now used in scattered ways with limited support (and other groups have worked to promote it over the years; see Newstips from 2005.)

System-wide implementation would be the best way to reduce violence and promote a “culture of calm,” Finkelstein said.

“A lot of people in CPS don’t know what [restorative justice] means,” he said.  “We think students should be the ones defining it.”

For background: Newstips on GenderJust’s Safe and Affirming Education campaign; Newstips on Blocks Together Youth Council’s security guard campaign.

A letter to Obama

With the anniversary of President Obama’s election tomorrow, some of his staunchest supporters are waiting for action on key issues.  Foreclosures continue, unemployment remains high, and immigration and labor law reform is on hold.

“In many ways the undocumented ended up being made the bogeyman [of the health care debate] by Republicans, and got thrown under the bus by many Democrats,” writes Josh Hoyt of ICIRR at Progress Illinois.

“Meanwhile deportations have increased under the Obama administration, and it is unclear whether the political will to move forward on immigration reform will exist after the exhausting health care battle subsides.”

On Tuesday, November 3, labor, immigrant, civil rights and community groups are rallying across from Grant Park at the Spertus Institute, 610 S. Michigan, at 11:30 a.m. to  renew the push for change.  The theme is “inclusive health care reform and a progressive America,” and issues include health care reform, immigration reform, workers’ rights, LGBT rights, living wage jobs, financial regulation, action on climate change and creating a more peaceful world.

Local activists are signing a letter to President Obama “urging courage in moving forward on a broad range of challenging policy initiatives our nation urgently needs,” Hoyt writes.

“Too often, we work in silos, not seeing the humanity of others or the justice of their causes. But building an America that is fair and inclusive demands that we band together.”

CPS acts on LGBT concerns

A grassroots organizing campaign led by LGBT youth has won agreement from CPS chief Ron Huberman on a new advisory council to promote the school district’s policies against discrimination and harassment.

The agreement comes weeks after another youth-led campaign won an expanded anti-discrimination policy from the Board of Education.

Meeting with members of the citywide coalition Gender Just and other groups on August 18, Huberman offered to fund an “intervention team” or advisory council of students and community members that would develop a student justice handbook and guide development of a training curriculum for CPS staff.

The team will also be tasked with developing a grievance process for students with discrimination and harassment issues that their own schools aren’t addressing adequately, said Sam Finkelstein of Genter Just.

CPS’s anti-discrimination policy was expanded to add gender identity and expression to the list of protect categories at the school board’s July 22 meeting. That decision followed a drive by young people working with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, during which nearly a thousand signatures were collected on petitions.

The August meeting followed a community forum with Huberman in June where Gender Just proposed eight measures as part of their “safe and affirming education” campaign. These included a district accountability organizer to assist gay-straight alliances in every school; comprehensive sex education, covering condom use and diverse sexual orientations; accountability for security guards; attention to the potential impacts of school closings on vulnerable students; and a directive to principals emphasizing the district’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

Gender Just wanted mandatory training for all staff; Huberman agreed to develop a curriculum for new staff orientation that would also be available online, Finkelstein said. A letter to principals emphasizing district policies will go out with the new curriculum, he said.

Good policies, not always followed

CPS has good policies but they aren’t implemented everywhere, Finkelstein said. “There are a lot of disparities and they tend to match up with income levels and race,” he said.

Gay-straight alliances — GSAs — are generally found on the north side, with very few on the south or west sides, he said. Often schools won’t allow students to form GSAs, even though CPS policy requires them to do so if they allow any student clubs, Finkelstein said.

“Teachers weren’t really supportive,” said Akhia Daniels, a recent graduate of South Shore High School for Leadership. “They would see stuff going on and not address it.”

“School is supposed to be a place for education, a place to be safe, not a place to be judged on whether you like boys or girls,” she said. “They want you to do all these things and at the same time they’re not offering you a safe environment.”

Another campaign member is Chicago Youth Initiating Change, a citywide social justice group. CYIC emphasizes problems with Renaissance 2010, including problems caused for vulnerable students by closings and relocations.

Military academies, security guards

Renaissance 2010 schools present other problems, Finkelstein said: with “more flexibility and less accountability,” charter and contract schools associated with Renaissance 2010 are more likely to disregard or feel unbound by CPS policy. Discrimination, harassment and violence are particularly issues in the military academies which are proliferating, he said.

Blocks Together, a community organization which organizes youth in West Humboldt Park, joined the campaign because BT’s longtime effort to improve training for security guards (see below) meshed with its goals, said Cecile Carroll. At last month’s meeting, Huberman said CPS is finally overhauling training to raise standards and increase professionalism among guards.

Blocks Together’s youth council wants to be at the table — in part to ensure that principles of restorative justice are part of the training — Carroll said. “It’s a good opportunity to help influence the culture of security guards all across the system, rather than school by school, the way we have been working,” she said.

While school districts in cities across the country are beginning to address the concerns of LGBT youth, Chicago’s efforts are noteworthy because of the direct involvement of youth in designing responses, Finkelstein said. “Chicago has a robust youth organizing movement right now,” he said.

NAACP and Prop 8

Amid the celebrations following last November’s election, gay rights supporters were bitterly disappointed by the success of Proposition 8 in California, which banned gay marriage in the state.  Some blamed African American voters who turned out for Barack Obama and went on to vote for Prop 8 (though others pointed out that anti-Prop 8 outreach to the black community wasn’t what it should have been). 

So it was significant last week when the NAACP joined other civil rights groups in a friend-of-the-court brief supporting a legal effort to overturn Prop 8.  The groups argued it’s a civil rights issue: a majority vote cannot be the means of denying rights to a minority. 

Karin Wang of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center cited the history of Asian immigrants in California, where majority-enacted 19th-century law presented them with race-based provisions ranging “from prohibitions against owning property and testifying in court, to targeted taxes that applied only to Chinese immigrants, to restrictions on marriage, education, and other aspects of daily life.”

American Prospect has a report on NAACP’s action, which “thrusts the NAACP into the middle of a fight that, until now, it has largely avoided, because of the risk of alienating both board-level leadership and rank-and-file members….

“For Pastor Amos Brown, the president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, opposition to Prop. 8 had serious consequences. Several weeks after the election, a significant number of donors had pulled out of the local NAACP’s fundraising dinner because of his opposition to Prop 8. Brown was angry, but he wouldn’t back down from his position.

“‘We don’t live in a theocracy,’ Brown told me when I spoke with him in November. Brown, who opposes banning same-sex marriage but also says he wouldn’t perform a same-sex marriage ceremony in his church, says his dedication to civil rights and opposition to Prop. 8 come from a similar place. He recalls first seeing a picture of Emmitt Till, a youth who was lynched in 1955 for supposedly making a pass at a white woman.

“‘When I saw that picture,’ Brown says, ‘I promised God myself, never would I be mean to people who were different.'”

Kathryn Kolbert, president of People For the American Way Foundation, describes the intensive sessions on homophobia in the black church during the California NAACP’s convention in October, which leaders of PFAW’s African American Ministers Leadership Council helped organize: 

“The overflow sessions went on for hours, demonstrating that there is a real hunger for the kind of honest, rousing conversation about homophobia, discrimination, love, equality, scripture, and politics. People’s hearts were changed, even if everyone didn’t end the session ready to fully embrace marriage equality.”

‘Real life’ sex education

HIV rates in Illinois are up by 50 percent since 2004, with half of new infections occurring among those under 25 years old. But many Chicago students report that they aren’t being taught about HIV, said Paula Gilovich, education director of About Face Theatre.

Young people were central players is creating a new, LGBT-inclusive program on HIV prevention and sex education which combines a theatrical performance, a video, and a curriculum for classroom instruction.

“Condom Sense: A Real Life Education” will get a public viewing on Friday, February 20 at 6 p.m. at the Howard Brown Health Center, 4025 N. Sheridan. The event features About Face’s play “Fast Forward,” BeyondMedia’s video “HIV: Hey, It’s Viral!” and a panel discussion.

The play has been touring schools around the city and state, accompanied by a sexual health educator to answer questions. The entire program is under consideration for use by Chicago Public Schools.

CPS has a comprehensive sex education policy, but its application is left up to individual teachers, with widely varying results, said Joseph Hollendoner of Howard Brown’s Broadway Youth Center. Too often “students are exposed to education that is misleading or incomplete,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just, HIV is this terrible disease and you’re going to get it if you’re sexually active.”

In extended workshops in the summer of 2007, young people related “bizarre and strange and often hilarious stories about sex education,” Gilovich said. “That’s when the play really took off.”  They also told of “incident after incident of homophobia — from administrators, from teachers, from fellow students,” she said.

Participants concluded the two issues are related, Gilovich said. HIV often isn’t discussed because it’s considered a gay phenomenon. And the abstinence-oriented instruction which some teachers provide isn’t applicable to gays and lesbians, who are legally excluded from marrying.

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Events

Film premier: “War on the Family”; citywide meeting on school closings; gay rights rallies; Cardinal George at CeaseFire in Logan Square; a local Muslim leader on the U.S. and Afghanistan; Chicago lawyers on torture at Guantanamo and in Chicago; Jewish peace groups meet on Gaza crisis.

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        By Stephen Franklin Community Media Workshop   A 3-year-old child died on a plane from Chicago to Poland. This, Magdalena Pantelis instantly knew, was a story her readers would care about. But she needed more detail to write about it for the Polish Daily News, the nation’s oldest daily newspaper in Polish, founded Jan. […]
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